The most reverberant golf quote I know actually comes from John Ford’s 1962 Western called “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, who were leading men in their day the equal of Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan. In the mystery over who shot whom, a crusty old editor summarizes at the end, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
It came to mind earlier this year when a set of Titleist 681-T irons and two Vokey wedges stamped “TIGER” sold at auction for $5.15 million, the second most valuable pieces of sporting goods behind Babe Ruth’s game-worn jersey that went for $5.6 million in 2019. The legend is that Woods used these clubs to win his wrap-around Grand Slam in 2000-01 and gave them to his friend and Titleist tour rep Steve Mata, who passed a polygraph attesting to this fact. We know that Mata sold the clubs for $57,242 in 2010, and the buyer sold them again in April through Golden Age Golf Auctions to an undisclosed American businessman for the record-setting price.
Here’s the spoiler: Woods said in a press conference at the 2010 Players that “[Mata] may have my set of irons, but they’re not from those tournaments. They’re in my garage.” Ahead of the auction Tiger’s manager repeated his denial. The high bidder believed Mata over Woods and bought the clubs anyway.
Notoriously frugal, Tiger is known for detesting the notion that others are profiting from his success, so you might say the provenance here is uncertain. But the best debunking argument I heard was made by a mutual friend who told me: “You know Tiger. Do you think he’d give away anything of such value?”
Regardless, Tiger’s irons are not the most coveted item of golf memorabilia. That distinction belongs to two clubs on display in the USGA Museum in Liberty Corner, NJ One is the Wilson 6-iron used by Admiral Alan Shepard Jr. on the moon in 1971 (authenticated by NASA). The astronaut hid the clubhead in his space suit until attaching it to the shaft of a rock-scooping tool and hitting two golf balls on the lunar surface, which made golf the first sport played in space.
The other club holds greater mystery. Ben Hogan was in a serious car accident that threatened his playing career in February 1949. After a remarkable recovery—see Glenn Ford in “Follow the Sun”—Hogan squandered a three-stroke lead in the 1950 US Open at Merion and came to the last hole, a tough 458-yard par 4 over a quarry. His tee shot left him 210 yards to the hole. Fred Corcoran, the director of the tour, standing in the gallery, told Hogan he was tied with leaders Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio, so he needed a par to get into the playoff. This is where the mystery begins.
The long iron Hogan hit to the green was captured by Hy Peskin in what became the most famous golf photograph of all time, poetry in motion with the gallery a serpentine backdrop and the player in “total consciousness,” as another movie might put it. This is the only shot described by Hogan in his 1957 classic instruction book, Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. Working with America’s most revered golf writer, Herbert Warren Wind, Hogan wrote: “I went with a 2-iron and played what was in my honest judgment one of the best shots of my last round, perhaps one of the best I played during the tournament.” These two perfectionists called the club a 2-iron, and left it as such in dozens of subsequent editions of their best-selling book.
The problem is that Hogan, without explanation, changed his mind and later—in many letters, interviews and conversations—said the club in the picture was a 1-iron. That club and his white golf shoes were stolen between the fourth round and the playoff and remained missing for decades.
In 1978, Hogan described the shot to Nick Seitz in Golf Digest: “I had a cut 4-wood shot going in there, actually. But the pin was set behind that bunker on the right, and I wasn’t hitting my 4-wood very well. I was a little goosey about it. I had to get a 4 to tie. And where that pin was, I knew I couldn’t get a 3. I took a 1-iron to bounce the ball onto the green. I couldn’t work it into the hole. If I faded the 1-iron, I couldn’t reach the hole. I had about a 30-foot putt and got down in two, thankfully.”
Seems definitive until you listen to an audio clip from a telephone interview with Herb Wind conducted by golf writer Guy Yocom in 1995: “We thought it was a 2-iron, all of us who were there. Why he later chose to say it was a 1-iron, I have no idea, and I would not go any further into it than that because Ben in some ways could be crotchety, and I think this is a very good example,” Wind said. “There’s no question about that being correct. Well, it was a 2-iron when we saw it [at Merion]and if Ben went along with it in the book, then there’s no question at all.”
None of this mattered much until the classic club dealer Bob Farino acquired a MacGregor “Personal Model” 1-iron in 1982, suspected it to be the missing Hogan club, and agreed to sell it for $200 to collector Jack Murdock, the Wake Forest basketball player and coach. I recently talked to Lanny Wadkins, who played on the Wake Forest golf team and knew Murdock. Lanny was on the Hogan Company staff and used to play money games with Hogan at Shady Oaks, so Murdock asked him to be the bag man in getting the club to Hogan.
I first wrote about this club in the September 1983 issue of Golf Digest, describing a worn-out area “the size of a quarter” exactly on the sweet spot— more toward the hosel than the center of the club face—and quoted Murdock as saying, “The person who used that club knew what the devil he was doing. Not many people could wear out a 1-iron like that.” Essentially on that evidence and an examination of the club by Hogan—he never hit the club to test because he had a bad back at the time—Hogan pronounced it the Merion 1-iron. In a letter to Murdock, Hogan wrote: “I liken this to the return of an old long-lost friend.”
In a letter to the USGA, he definitively stated: “Yes, my old #1 iron, which was stolen out of my bag at Merion, has been returned. The grip had been changed so just as soon as I can find an All Weather grip to replace the grip on the club now, I shall send this to you to hang below my portrait at Golf House.” (Note: It no longer hangs there, but instead is unceremoniously presented in a “comeback” display with Babe Zaharias memorabilia. Hogan would not be pleased.)
To demonstrate how meticulous Hogan was, he had his personal clubmaker, Gene Sheeley, install the proper All Weather cord grip, placing a wooden jig on the underside of the shaft “at 5:30” to ensure a weak left-hand position, preventing the hook that Hogan famously hated. How could a man this careful allow the club to be called a 2-iron in his book?
To my knowledge, John Capers, the longtime historian at Merion, is the only person who ever asked Hogan about the discrepancy between the 1- and 2-iron. In 1995, two years before Hogan died, Capers showed up unannounced at Hogan’s office in Fort Worth and was granted an impromptu audience.
When Capers asked him what club he hit into the 72nd green at Merion, Hogan said, “It was a 1-iron.” When Capers asked why his book said it was a 2-iron, Hogan said, “Someone must have changed the manuscript after I proofed it. To the best of my knowledge, that’s the only thing that could have happened.”
I’ve come to think of Hogan’s 1-iron and Tiger’s Grand Slam irons the way the art world views the lost and found “Salvator Mundi” (“Savior of the World”) painting by Leonardo da Vinci. It may or may not be da Vinci’s, but somebody paid $450 million at Christie’s, and it looks pretty good.
“Unless I saw someone hit the shot with the club, take it out of his bag and hand it to me as he walked off the last hole, I couldn’t guarantee it was the club,” Capers says. “But I believe Hogan’s 1-iron is the one in the USGA Museum because I believe what Hogan told me.”
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend, it says here.